Saturday, November 9, 2013

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: Two Belated Book Reviews (1)

This is the first of two articles in which I wish belatedly to review two important books on the Palestine issue that I have only just got around to reading. Actually, such a delay may have its own advantages: after the rush of interest in a new book has subsided, it may be that the belated reviewer can help to revive it.

First published in hardback by Yale University Press in 2011, celebrated Israeli historian Ilan Pappé’s The Forgotten Palestinians has now been reissued in paperback.  This “history of the Palestinians in Israel” radiates Pappé’s dedication to the cause of justice for Palestinians, whether their dispossession and displacement took place outside or inside what is now the state of Israel.

The title is well chosen, because the “1948 Palestinians” tend to be left out of account by those for whom the Palestine issue is primarily defined by the 1967 Occupation. When they are mentioned, it tends to be in a tone that is at best guarded and at worst dismissive: they are non-participants in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, or even collaborators with the oppressive state that grants them inferior citizenship as long as they keep their heads down. Pappé’s sympathy with them is palpable and unconditional. Recalling that “[i]n years to come, a younger generation of Palestinians would look with disdain at their elders and accuse them of succumbing too easily to Israeli humiliation”, he counters by characterising “their steadfastness and stubborn determination not to fall prey to the Israeli policies” as “a chapter of heroism not defeatism…” (p.48).

“Our Palestinians”, as the Israeli state caricatures them, are “the citizens of the state who have no collective rights – apart from formal democratic rights such as voting. Unlike the Jewish majority, they have no right of land ownership, cannot identify in public with their national movement and cannot build autonomous educational or cultural systems. For most of the time this was sufficient for presenting Israel as the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’, but the apparition disappeared when… the Palestinians in Israel increasingly demanded collective rights. Then, in October 2000, the state reacted brutally and violently to drive its message home.” (p.268)

This refers to the beginning of the second Intifada (uprising, literally shaking off) when the Israeli police shot dead thirteen of their Palestinian citizens who were protesting against the then opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s deliberately provocative visit to the Haram Al-Sharif, the holiest Islamic site in Palestine. Indeed this book is dedicated to their memory. For Pappé this confrontation is seminally linked to other crises in Palestinian history such as the 1948 Nakbah (catastrophe) that saw the initial “ethnic cleansing of Palestine” (the title of another Pappé book) by Jewish forces, the 1976 “Day of the Land” when Israeli police and military shot dead six Palestinian citizens demonstrating against land expropriation, and the first Intifada (1987-92) which shook the Zionist establishment to the core and ultimately led to such pacifying measures as the Oslo Agreement and certain superficial improvements in the status of “our Palestinians”.

For me, the most important chapter of this book is the second – The Open Wound: Military Rule and Its Lasting Impact. It is remarkable how rarely commentators refer to the fact that between 1948 and 1966 the Palestinian citizens of Israel lived under a gruelling system of de facto military dictatorship. Indeed, writes Pappé, this period “is still repressed by the traumatized victims and the guilt-stricken victimizers” (p.46 – it’s debatable whether the victimisers are particularly “guilt-stricken”). The “elaborate system of control and oppression” (p.48) allowed for the expulsion of population, the arbitrary summoning of any citizen to a police station at any time, arrest and detention without trial, the imposition of curfews, and curtailment of the freedom of the press and expression. 

As Pappé points out, despite the blatancy of this heinous system of legalised discrimination imposed on its Palestinian minority Israel still justified itself in the world’s eyes as “the only democracy in the Middle East” because these second- or third-class citizens were allowed to vote.  This fact justifies utter scepticism regarding the continued use of that phrase by Zionists and their present-day fellow-travellers. Indeed “the vote” remains a more than usually useless privilege in the hands of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, by now 20% of the population, who have never been represented in any of the wild and woolly coalition governments running the Israeli state.

While military rule was officially suspended in 1966, it went underground (without entirely disappearing) within “sovereign” Israel only to resurface in the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 war. In today’s Occupied Territories, the Palestinians live under a totalitarian military regime, and do not have even the limited influence over their own lives enjoyed by their sisters and brothers in Israel. Nonetheless Israel, as if mysteriously unconnected to this quasi-fascist system, continues to adduce its “democratic” character to differentiate it from those reviled Mukhabarat-run Arab and Persian neighbours to which Pappé nonetheless provocatively compares it (pp. 271-2 - the Mukhabarat are the secret police in Arab countries).

Pappé’s humane and passionate book provides a detailed historical context for the evolution of this profoundly anomalous and inhumane state of affairs. It is neither the first book of its kind (ground-breaking precursors by Elia Zureik and Ian Lustick are among those discussed in Pappé’s Appendix) nor the most recent (Ben White’s Palestinians in Israel came out in 2012, Shira Robinson’s Citizen Strangers in 2013). There is no excuse for “the forgotten Palestinians” to remain forgotten.

In the second of these articles I’ll be discussing The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa by Sasha Polakow-Suransky.

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